Benevolent Bovines: Proof That Cows Are Sentient Beings

The Complexity of Cows

Over the course of human evolution, we have come to assign specific roles to the animals in our society. Dogs and cats are pets, horses are for ploughing and riding, and chickens are associated with meat and eggs.

It’s astonishing how this has led to an animal as emotionally complex as the cow, being associated with steaks, burgers, milk, leather, and beef. Today, cows are little more than living, breathing commodities meant to be subjugated for our use. 

In fact, most people have never recognized that cows, just like cats and dogs, have their own personalities and are deserving of love and respect.

Just like any conscious individual, cows display a wide variety of complex personality types. Some are bold, adventurous and perhaps temperamental, while others may be shy and timid, yet calm. Animal behaviourists have also observed that cows interact in socially complex ways (much like humans) with some cows even holding grudges against other cows who have offended them in some way! 

The reason most people are unaware of the emotional complexities possessed by cows is due to the way in which their behaviour is studied. 

Research is conducted in the context of cows being food commodities and with the purpose of managing them better in a slaughterhouse or dairy farm. This is severely limiting, and little attention is given to their intelligence, personality, and sociability.

By valuing cows mainly for their instrumental value, or what they can do for us, their inherent nature as sentient beings is completely ignored. 

But these gentle creatures are no doubt sentient; more than we can imagine. Here are a few facts to justify why cows are sentient and as deserving of love and respect as any other living being. 

1. Advanced Cognition   

Cows are far from the ‘dumb heifers’ they’ve been made out to be. Experiments have shown that cows understand cause-effect relationships and have even learned to push a lever when it’s set up to release food. In fact, the serotonin released in their brain during these experiments show that they actually enjoy intellectual challenges! 

Cows have been known to display long-term memory and can recognise the faces of other cows and humans, years after their initial meeting. They are able to differentiate between individual cows and recognise cow faces as distinct from that of other species. 

These traits highlight a highly complex cognitive structure in their brains which supports the evidence that they are sentient beings. 

2. Emotional Intelligence 

Cows are intensely emotional animals, capable of displaying a wide range of emotions, including joy, anger, fear, anxiety, and sadness.

In fact, much like humans, cows exhibit physiological responses when gripped with certain emotions. For example, when they are stressed out, the whites of their eyes are more clearly visible. When they’re relaxed and happy their ears lie loosely, perpendicular to their heads. 

When mothers are separated from their calves there is a significant increase in the amount of eye white. Just like human mothers, cows cannot bear to be separated from their babies and have been known to cry and bellow for days and even weeks after the separation.

 

Cows have even been known to try and avoid humans who have caused them pain and gravitate towards those who show them love and compassion. It’s astonishing that with all this evidence, humans still assume that cows in slaughterhouses and dairy farms are unaware of what’s happening to them. 

In fact, they can ‘see’ when their friends and family members are being killed, and hear their cries and empathise with them as well. Cows in animal farms have been shown to have chronic increased cortisol levels; a clear marker of complex feelings like anxiety and stress.

3. Social Hierarchies

A herd of cows can be compared to a pack of wolves; a group with complex social dynamics between its members. Cows can recognise over 50 members of their herd and interpersonal relationships are important to them. 

The herd usually chooses a leader based on her social skills, and intelligent cows with self-confidence and an agreeable nature are usually the best candidates. The selfish, pushy, and more temperamental cows aren’t very popular leader choices. They’re usually given a wide berth, but every cow in the herd is aware of the personality traits of her sisters and adjusts to it.

Raising cows in crowded cattle ranches and dairy farms upsets the social hierarchy and leads to fights in the bid for dominance. If we consider wolves, dogs, and other socially complex animals to be sentient, why not cows?

4. The Will To Live 

While all these characteristics highlighted above are proof of a cow’s sentience, none are as potent as the will to live. In any slaughterhouse, you’ll notice cows protesting when they’re being poked and prodded along. Being emotionally and cognitively capable, they’re aware when they’re being mistreated. They can even guess what’s coming next, especially when they start to notice a few of their family members and friends missing. Just like any other living creature, cows value their own lives and would choose to live if given the choice.

5. Some Heroic Cows

• A cow named Emily jumped the gate of a slaughterhouse in Massachusetts, England to escape her cruel fate. Emily managed to survive a harsh winter, thanks to the concern of local residents who would lay out hay for her to eat. She was found a few weeks later by slaughterhouse workers but the residents had warmed up to her by then and demanded that she be transferred to a sanctuary.

Pictured: Emily

• A Polish cow managed to evade slaughterhouse workers for weeks by swimming to a small island on Lake Nylskie in Southern Poland. As she was being led to a truck bound for the slaughterhouse, she overpowered the workers, smashed through a fence, and ran to the shores of Lake Nylskie. When she was found, she refused to be caught and dived into the freezing lake, resurfacing on a small island just off the coast. Firefighters were sent in a boat to retrieve her, but she knew they were coming and swam another 50 metres away to a neighbouring peninsula.

Pictured: female cow that escaped

Stories like this are quite common if you know where to look, and of course it would not benefit the meat industry to have these stories publicised. That would only prove the sentience of cows, making it harder for people to allow them to be mistreated. And without exploiting these gentle creatures, the meat and dairy industry would be at a loss.

While these may seem like individual, unimportant instances of some cows fighting back, it confirms rather than dismisses the fact that cows are sentient. Most have been kept in slaughterhouses and dairy farms their whole lives. They’re been mistreated and tortured, and are physically too weak to attempt an escape. 

And just like humans, some cows are brave enough to try and escape slaughter while some are more timid. We humans have also experienced the effect of being in mass groups where comfort is assured. Similarly, cows may be aware and terrified that they’re going to be slaughtered, but being around their friends and family helps buffer the fear to a large extent, and few would protest, knowing that to do so would mean instant death.

We treat certain animals with love and respect, and cows deserve the same. They are perhaps the most docile animals we have interacted with for generations. They love to play, enjoy displays of affection, and are happy spending time with friends and family. 

Who are we to take that away from them?